Last week we had some interesting facts about the history of radio and its development. Part of that discussion was the development of the Chicago Radio Laboratory which later became the Zenith Radio Corporation. You may recall that Zenith was one of the first radio manufacturers and became known for high quality and innovation based upon visions of Karl Hassel, H.G. Mathews and E.A. McDonald.
Last week we briefly mentioned that during the time of World War II, most workers were off fighting the war and there was a shortage of people for manufacturing. Zenith noticed a pool of hard of hearing workers, but most did not have a hearing device that would allow them to communicate and interact at work. Company President, E.A. McDonald had planned on introducing hearing aids with the Zenith name with a prewar design but had to shelve the idea due to the war effort. In late 1942 and early 1943, Zenith began manufacturing hearing aids, reducing the price of high quality hearing instruments, especially for their workers, it was their only one civilian product manufactured during the War, the rest of their products were going to the War effort. According to Zenith, introduction of the first “ready to wear” low cost hearing aid was a phenomenal success. Within months this efficient economical aid was of great help to thousands who could not afford the high prices of other brands. It was not popular with the rest of the hearing aid manufacturers, however who saw the inexpensive, high quality Zenith device as real competition that would drive consumer costs (and manufacturer’s profits) down. Among others, both Dictograph Products Company, Inc., the owner of Acousticon, and Sonotone, using Siemens technology, were concerned about these inexpensive, yet beneficial instruments.
The Controversy: History Repeats itself
As hearing aids developed, manufacturers quibbled about who invented various components first patent rights. Such items as the bone conduction oscillator, microphone and receiver technologies, other circuitry modifications were races by various companies to own patents that made their products more beneficial than others in the market. While these quibbles were important business concerns, none was greater than the intention of Zenith to lower the cost of hearing aids in 1942/43. Bergman (2002) indicates that most hearing aids of the time were being sold for $125-150. Zenith sold their products in drug stores and jewelry stores for the price-shattering cost of $40 ($50 for the more advanced or more powerful model). Since their hearing devices were low cost and high quality, Zenith had many lawsuits relative to patents and infringements over the years. All of which were won to Zenith’s advantage. Nevertheless, stories were circulated to perspective hearing aid users by the other companies that these products were “thrown together, cheap hearing aids”, or “purely a Zenith publicity stunt”, and that the company would cease manufacturing hearing aids at the end of the war. Other anti-Zenith ads were that a hearing aid could not be sold “over-the-counter” as it had to be fitted by a professional consultant. The competitive manufacturers made complaints were made to the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission Better Business Bureau, The American Medical Association and all of these cases were handled with the utmost care and diligence through the 1940s and Zenith won them all. Other attacks were electronic parts manufacturers were encouraged not to deal with Zenith as suppliers for electronic components but they became their best customers for components and these attacks simply made friends and customers for Zenith hearing aids.
Does this Over -The-Counter issue sound familiar?
It is interesting that these cost issues and convenient dispensing over-the-counter are now repeating themselves 60+ years later. Although we know that the Zenith devices and their over the counter sales strategy was very successful, consider that at that time there was a huge backlog of otosclerosis and other conductive hearing losses. As most audiologist know, these conductive losses can benefit from just about any reliable linear hearing device. These days the patient population is quite different from that of 60+ years ago. The needs for today’s patients are quite different from those disorders that were the main causes of hearing loss in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, most of these conductive hearing losses are treated medically or surgically and do not require amplification. Those that do require amplification are those with sensori-neural hearing losses and their needs are quite different from 60+ years ago. While Zenith was quite successful with their strategy in the 1940s, good luck to those that choose to sell hearing aids over the counter in the 21st century.
Bergman, M. (2002). American wartime military audiology. Monograph: Audiology Today. American
Academy of Audiology, Reston, MD. Retrieved May 9, 2017.
Zenith (date unknown). The Zenith Story: A history from 1919. Retrieved May 9, 2017.